Review: LOGAN

I don’t really intend to write regular movie reviews. For one thing, I don’t see a lot of first-run films (although The Kid may end up talking us into THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE). For another, when I like a film, I don’t always like to examine my reactions too closely. I like a lot of stuff that’s deeply flawed, and I am left cold by some movies that people rave about.

That said: we saw LOGAN today and…yeah, that was a thing. It entertained me, for its entire (checks IMDB) two hours and seventeen minutes. (Holy cats. I knew it was long, but wow.)

But I feel kind of bad about myself for enjoying the movie. Not full-on must-take-a-shower bad, but bad enough to want to wash my hands six or seven times. The TL;DR on LOGAN is that it’s a well-acted, well-scripted gore-fest with predictable winners and losers, and a somewhat fuzzy moral center.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

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There’s a point in the movie where Laura, the child saved by Logan and Charles Xavier, is sitting in a hotel room watching SHANE (1953) with Charles. We see them watch Shane’s speech at the end of the film:

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.

We are led to believe that this is a Theme. That Logan is who he is and can’t change. Except the entire premise of the film is that he can rescue this little girl from what she’s been turned into – and what she’s done – and thus change who she is.

Because she gets to do lots and lots and LOTS of killing. Only bad guys, of course; but those of you who’ve seen SHANE (and wow, that must have been a restored print, because it looked gorgeous) know that he only kills bad guys as well. And at the end of that movie, while I could get behind Mom’s sentiment about “no more guns in the valley” – they were kind of lucky Shane was there with his gun when he was, weren’t they?

It’s an interesting philosophical theme, actually: the line between aggression and self-defense. Most of us would kill to defend our own lives, and the lives of those closest to us; but how wide does that circle go? And would we kill for a cause? Many films explore this theme with intelligence and subtlety, sometimes showing us people on both sides who believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s a theme that can leave us thoughtful, and sometimes unsettled.

There’s no such unsettling exploration in LOGAN. The bad guys are Bad. One of them isn’t even human, apparently: he’s a guy called X24 (also played by Hugh Jackman) who’s apparently some sort of clone who’s taking Super-Aggresion-And-Extra-Healing Potion. He’s the Phase 2 of a project that started with Phase 1, aka X23, aka impregnating a bunch of kidnapped girls with mutant DNA and isolating and training the children from childhood. (The mothers, of course, don’t last beyond gestation.)

To bring home exactly how horrible this experiment is, we get a scene of secret video in which a birthday party given for the children is interrupted by the Evil Scientists who explain that the kids shouldn’t be treated with kindness because they are only science experiments. There’s not a lot of moral ambiguity here. THEY KILL MOTHERS AND ARE MEAN TO LITTLE KIDS. All we need to hear is that they throw away apple pies without eating them, and we have the Deserves To Die Trifecta.

And that weakens the film considerably. I know they were trying to do a lot here, but packs of Black Hats that we don’t care about at all give us only one thing: a bunch of “justified” gross-out death scenes. I’m not generally shy about violence in movies (depending on the type and how it’s used), but it seems filmmakers keep trying to make things more shocking and graphic. If I never see another person stabbed through the head, it will be too soon. Yes, it was disgusting. But…did we care? Were we really shocked, beyond the ick factor? Bad guys! Mothers and children! Apple pies! Kill them all, Logan! What’s taking you so long?

Yeah. I felt manipulated. All movies manipulate, but I don’t like being manipulated into cheering for large masses of death.

There are also a couple of bits of subtext here that nag at me a bit. One is the Purity of Middle America stuff. Our trio (later our duo) runs into bunches of nice people during their drive up country from Texas to North Dakota. Nobody seems to be worried, or suspicious of Logan’s massive number of new and old injuries, or wondering about the little girl with blood all over her clothes. And being nice doesn’t much help them, does it? I could have done without the Redshirt Family with the horses. They were nice, and didn’t deserve what happened, and we already knew Bad Guys Were Bad, so what was the point of this except to get the kid an iPod?

The other is something I notice in a lot of movies, although not all of them: where are the women? I notice this most often in the near-future semi-apocalyptic stuff (like LOOPER): in the future, women are apparently moms (or, in this case, nurses who are essentially mom stand-ins), prostitutes, or both; but nothing else. They are certainly never part of the packs of Bad Guy redshirts. And I understand why Hollywood doesn’t like to do that: we live in a culture that is still uncomfortable with the idea of female combatants, and in films like this the bad guys are intended as nothing but cannon fodder. But I do get a bit weary, sometimes, of the angst-ridden Men Fighting Other Men nonsense that treats women as something to be exploited or protected, but never as people with their own agendas, abilities, and fates.

(And before anybody comes at me with the “muscle mass upper body strength argle bargle blargh” argument: this movie establishes the existence of injectable green goo that makes you invincible to bullets through the eye so save your breath.)

Ultimately, LOGAN was an underdog movie: our aging, ill hero and a pack of children against a lot of big, threatening, beefy guys with guns. We know from the beginning who’s going to win. The ones who don’t survive to the end credits are no real surprise (although my husband pointed out – and I agree – that it might have been nice to have left us some kind of opening for possibly getting Wolverine back, like maybe a pebble moving on the grave or something), but we know, one way or another, that at least Laura is going to do the Sound of Music trek over the mountains into Canada. (This the film does well: establishing that Canada is offering them asylum, without hammering the point home. That’s about as political as we get here.) It’s the kind of movie where adults can drop like flies, and we can be manipulated into grieving for them, but kids and puppies (or, in this case, horses) are all safe.

So why did I enjoy it?

The script has some well-done dialogue, and the actors do nice work with it. Both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman sell their parts with humor and humanity. Dafne Keen, who plays Laura, does an admirable job, especially considering she has no lines until halfway through the film. Boyd Holbrook and Richard Grant have thankless parts as mustache-twirling baddies, but they twirl their twirliest, and I nursed appropriate hatred for them both.

And…okay. Gross-out-fest or not, some of the action scenes were pretty cool. I can’t say it wasn’t fun watching a little tiny girl take out some massive, heavily-armed nasties. The filmmakers did some decent choreography there, having Laura take advantage of her size and quickness to get in close to the enemy. And there’s a scene near the end where she actually runs up Logan’s back to launch herself off of his shoulders. Assuming super-strength and training, her fighting style isn’t that implausible.

I like watching fights. I am never sure whether or not I should be concerned about this.

Rating time:

Execution: 7/10. Well-written and well-performed, but the second act dragged a bit, and there were too many convenience characters. Also, that poor family with the horses. Never accept help from strangers, people.

SF elements: 6/10. I feel like I should grade this on a sliding scale, given that it’s a comic book movie in an established universe; but there’s an awful lot of Convenience Technology here, including a clone that looks just like Logan ready to go at exactly the right time, and a super-potion that wears off when it’s convenient to the plot.

Melodrama: 5/10. Some very nice “family” moments with Logan and Xavier, and also with Logan and Laura. But ultimately the film’s message on connection seems muddled, and its moral stance on murder is flat-out contradictory.

Which gives us 6 out of 10. Not bad, for a potato chip.

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Review: ARRIVAL

I am a spoiler junky.

Some of this is efficiency. We watch a lot of movies on Netflix (especially random horror films, which, despite the occasional work of genuine brilliance, tend to skew heavily toward disjointed, unintelligent wastes of time), and I want to know what I’m getting into before I invest my attention. With very few exceptions, good films are still good, even if the story’s surprises aren’t surprising. (I re-watched The Sixth Sense last year, and it’s still a lovely film, even knowing The Big Hook.) In contrast–well, let’s just say Wikipedia has saved me from many an emotional investment that would only have ended in annoyance.

My husband saw Arrival before I did. I had been curious about it; but one has to be careful with highly-anticipated science fiction films. So many of them are beauty without substance, or substance without plot. And I’ve really, really, really hated some that have received critical acclaim (*cough* Ex Machina *cough*). But I kind of love Amy Adams, and another SF film made from a short story–Edge of Tomorrow–is one of my favorites, so I had cautious hope.

And entirely out of character, I studiously avoided spoilers.

My husband gave me a spoiler-free review, which I won’t share here, because having seen it I pretty much concur with him, and I’ll get to that in a bit. I will say I’m kind of amazed I was able to avoid spoilers, because Arrival is one of those movies that you pretty much can’t discuss at all without spoiling something.

TL;DR: BIG, HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ARRIVAL. NO, REALLY, I’M NOT KIDDING, BEGINNING-TO-END DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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Two minutes into the film, I turned to my husband with tears on my face and demanded to know: “Is this a dead kid movie?”

“I’m saying nothing,” he replied.

Which was the right answer, because I worked very hard to avoid spoilers, and this is a spoiler that would have made me avoid the movie entirely.

Because yes, it’s a dead kid movie. I’d argue that Arrival is your basic dead kid movie stylishly wrapped in some SF tropes.

This is not to say the film doesn’t work. Overall, it works fairly well. Lots of dead kid movies work well. But Arrival basically uses alien invasion, linguistic misunderstanding, time loops and some fantasy bits masquerading as physics to wrap a story of Appreciating What You Have When You Have It, Even Though You Know You’re Going To Lose It And It’s Going To Be Like Having Your Guts Ripped Out Through Your Navel.

I wonder if the people who tell these stories have children, or if their children are grown and they just don’t remember.

I read Sebold’s The Lovely Bones when I was pregnant. I had no trouble getting through the book, but I remember wondering if I’d feel the same after my child was born. Answer: Nope, in so many ways. I saw Trainspotting when The Kid was 2, and I was shaking and weeping while Ewan McGregor was hallucinating a baby on the ceiling to the familiar strains of “Blue Monday.” We rented In The Bedroom (which is indeed a brilliant film) and I still get a knot in my gut when I think about it. We rented The Sweet Hereafter and sent it back unwatched because oh, hell, no.

So yeah, I have a visceral problem with dead kid stories, and you should probably take that into account when reading this review.

But I do think, fundamentally, Arrival‘s SF elements are primarily misdirection, and for me, that was a bit of a let-down. It’s not so much a science fiction film as a melodrama that uses time travel (more or less) to ratchet up the pathos. And all of the elements, both SF and melodrama, were fairly well-worn, no matter how beautifully they were presented.

The unique angle here (and what I suspect was the core idea in the short story, which I haven’t read) is the nature of the heptapod’s language, and how it affects Louise’s mind. I’m not a linguist, but I do remember learning French in school, and finding it affecting my facility with English. Most interestingly, though, was visiting my parents for the few years they were living in the Netherlands, and watching Sesame Street in Dutch. I knew zero Dutch, but after a few days I started understanding the show. Not a lot, and not in a translating-in-my-head way; but I started to get it. It was weird, and not at all the vocabulary-and-phrase-based learning that had been my only exposure to new languages.

It made perfect sense to me that Louise would be changed by learning the heptapod’s everything-all-at-once-forever language. And okay, fine, that change allowed her to somehow slip outside of time entirely and perceive it as a whole. But that nudges the movie toward fantasy territory for me, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it was another thing I didn’t expect.

The line between SF and fantasy is fuzzy and much debated. Most readers are happy to have psychic phenomena and faster-than-light travel in their SF, never mind current evidence that neither of those things is possible. I suppose there’s no reason I should draw the line at psychic phenomena, or at the idea that a human, born and existing in our four-dimensional world, should suddenly be gifted with extra-dimensional perception.

In this case, though, I think it bothered me because of my original problem: it’s all misdirection. The entire tale is a shaggy dog story explaining that personal tragedy is somehow worth it (and it’s spun as Louise’s tragedy, which indeed it is, but it’s also a tragedy for the kid, and the way it’s treated here tweaks a little bit of my women-in-refrigerators sensitivity). The story isn’t about alien invasion, or humanity discovering how to cooperate, or a (rather pointed) message about how incredibly stupidly we can act when we’re amorphously afraid.

The story is about how hideous tragedy can be offset by beauty and meaning. It’s not a bad message, but to have the whole thing circle back to that after aliens and betrayal and duplicity and weird language and Louise’s world-rescuing victory at the end is kind of a let-down.

My husband’s take was that Arrival is the kind of SF movie that people who don’t read much SF really love. That’s a tad harsh, perhaps, but I know what he means. The SF bits are pretty well-worn (there are a lot of opportunities to make the old Twilight Zone “To Serve Man” joke during this movie, even though it doesn’t go that way). And while the romance never gets in the way of the best parts of the story–and we all know, especially by the end, why it’s there at all–its inclusion felt jarring to me. When Louise and Ian meet on the helicopter, I was thinking “Oh, they’re doing this? How disappointingly ordinary.” (Y’all know how much I generally enjoy romance in my stories, but the setup here was unimaginative and clunky.)

“So, Liz,” I hear you ask, “was there anything you liked about this movie?”

Well, yeah. As mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Amy Adams, and I think she did a remarkable job here. It can’t have been an easy part to play. Louise is very self-contained, which is necessary, I think, to avoid revealing the entire plot from the start, and it’s hard to make a character like that compelling on screen. Adams reveals Louise’s character in gesture and reaction, and careful delivery of dialogue. There are some actors who can never quite disappear from a film, but I stopped thinking “Amy Adams” very early on in this movie.

And I think the reactions that various characters had to the aliens were well-drawn, even if the point being made was not subtle. Everyone is afraid, but for some curiosity wins instead of terror. And it makes perfect sense that a pack of soldiers would go AWOL, caught up in the idea of duty and dying for their country, based on no evidence apart from the vast amount of things they didn’t know. I also found believable–if unrealistic–the idea that one government standing down would be enough to get the others to follow suit.

And I liked the alien’s message: We’re helping you, because in the future you’ll help us and it’d be nice if you didn’t actually annihilate yourselves like a bunch of primitive jackasses before that happened.

Well, okay. The aliens didn’t say the bit about primitive jackasses. That’s me editorializing. But I think it comes to the same thing.

Rating time!

Execution: 9/10. I think both the beginning and the end could have been trimmed–the end in particular took far too long to sledgehammer the point home–but goodness, it was lovely.

SF elements: 7/10. The language angle was interesting, but the rest was tried and true (although very well drawn here).

Melodrama: 3/10. A bit too much stereotyping in the romance department, Ian ends up looking like a jerk for leaving his will-die-later daughter and his wife who then has to deal with it alone, and enough with the dead kid stuff, please.

That comes to 6-1/3 out of 10, which is probably a fair representation of my reaction to the film.